Q: I’ve noticed that “hop” and “hops” seem to be used interchangeably. Thus the “Hop Growers of America” have a report entitled “USA Hops.” And “hopped” and “hopping” appear on beer menus regularly, as well as expressions like “a high-hops pale ale.” I would be interested in your take on the “hop” family.
A: As any brewmaster can tell you, the noun “hop” can refer either to the plant Humulus lupulus or to the greenish conelike flower it produces. And the plural “hops” can mean multiple plants or multiple flowers.
But the flowers, which are dried and used in making beer, are generally referred to in the plural, “hops,” because we seldom have occasion to refer to only one.
So “hops” are what grow on the plant known as a “hop,” just as “roses” grow on on the plant known as a “rose.”
The noun “hop,” in its botanical sense, came into English in the 1400s from the term for it in Middle Dutch (hoppe), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. No history of the word is known before medieval times, and its further origin is obscure, the OED says.
However, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology points to a prehistoric Proto-Germanic source, a word reconstructed as hup-nan, ultimately from an Indo-European base, keup– or kup-.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says this base meant “cluster, tuft, hair of the head,” and identifies it as the source of the English “sheaf” as well as “hop,” a plant having a “tuftlike” flower.
The word appeared in Middle English not long after the large-scale use of hops as a beer flavoring was perfected and had spread to England’s trade partners Holland and Flanders, according to A History of Beer and Brewing (2003), by Ian Spencer Hornsey.
People had been making beer since ancient times, but it probably wasn’t flavored with hops until the Middle Ages, according to evidence cited by Hornsey and others
“Certainly by 1300, hops were widely cultivated in northern Europe,” Hornsey writes, “and it is almost impossible to imagine that, with the level of trade between English and the Low Countries the knowledge of their usefulness in brewing was not appreciated by English brewers, even though they did not encompass their use immediately.”
The first uses of “hop” and “hops” in written English are references to the flowers.
The OED’s earliest known example is from the Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary from around 1440, which renders the plant humulus as “Hoppe, sede [seed] for beyre.”
All the dictionary’s later references to the flower are in the plural, as in this poem from as early as 1500: “When I was a brewer longe / With hoopes I made my ale stronge.”
This 1503 example gives proportions for making beer from malt, wheat, oats, and hops: “x. quarters malte, ij. quarters wheet, ij. quarters ootes, xl. ll weight of hoppys. To make lx. barellz of sengyll beer.” (From the Chronicle of Richard Arnold, a merchant.)
But this example from 1542 has a slightly different recipe, along with an editorial comment. It comes from a physician who recommended ale (which at that time was made without hops) but opposed beer:
“Ale for an Englyssheman is a naturall drynke. … Barly malte maketh better Ale than Oten malte or any other corne doth. … It maketh a man strong. Bere is made of malte, of hoppes, and water, it is a naturall drynke for a doche [German] man. And nowe of lete dayes it is moche vsed in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men. … It doth make a man fatte, and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appere by the doche mennes faces and belyes.” (We’ve expanded the OED’s citation, from A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Helth by Andrew Borde or Boorde.)
References to the plant “hop” began to appear in English in the 16th century. As the OED says, “The plant is believed to have been introduced into the south of England from Flanders between 1520 and 1524.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from William Turner’s Libellus de re Herbaria Novus (1538), a botanical work that uses the plural “hoppes.”
But the OED’s other citations are mostly singular, especially when the noun is used in a generic way:
“To choose your Hoppe. Ye shal choose your roots best for your Hop, in the Sommer before ye shall plant them.” (From Leonard Mascall’s A Booke of The Arte and Maner How to Plant and Graffe All Sorts of Trees, 1572.)
“A hop, for want of a strong pole, will wind it self about a thistle or nettle or any sorry weed.” (From a 1647 collection of sermons by Robert Sanderson, bishop of Lincoln.)
“The planting of hops increased much in England during this reign.” (From David Hume’s The History of Great Britain, 1754.)
“The Hop … is remarkable amongst the Nettle Family for its twining stem.” (From Daniel Oliver’s Lessons in Elementary Botany, 1872.)
The word “hop” is also a verb meaning to flavor with hops. It’s often used in the passive, as when a beer or other malt liquor is said to be “well hopped,” “highly hopped,” “over-hopped,” and so on.
The OED’s earliest reference is dated 1572: “Ale, neyther to new, nor to stale, not ouerhopped.” (From The Benefit of the Auncient Bathes of Buckstones, by John Jones, a physician.)
And the noun “hop” is also used attributively as an adjective, generally in the singular: “hop growers,” “hop plants,” “hop industry,” “hop cultivation,” “hop harvest,” “hop flavor,” and so on.
Though the OED doesn’t say so, related adjectives have sprung up to describe the degree to which a beer tastes of hops.
Any connoisseur of craft beers is familiar with the terms “hoppy,” “hoppier,” and “hoppiest.” Merriam-Webster’s online says “hoppy” was first recorded around 1889 and means “having the taste or aroma of hops—used especially of ale or beer.”
However, “hoppiness” is in the eye—or the tastebuds—of the beholder. It’s a strong, biting flavor that’s sometimes described as bitterness.
In late 19th-century America, “hop” acquired another meaning, “a narcotic drug; spec. opium,” in the words of the OED.
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a New Orleans magazine, the Lantern, in May 1887: “As long as a smoker can obtain his ‘hop.’”
The word “hophead” was used to mean an opium smoker or drug addict since as far back as 1895 in San Francisco, according to research by contributors to the ADS List, the discussion group of the American Dialect Society.
Similarly, according to OED citations, a “hop-pipe” (1887) meant an opium pipe, and a “hop-dream” (1896) was an opium stupor.
Of course, there’s a shoe waiting to be dropped here. What about the other “hop,” the noun and verb corresponding to “jump”?
It’s tempting to think that there’s a connection and that, etymologically speaking, “hopped” beer has been given an extra “jump” or “spring” that it wouldn’t otherwise have.
Unfortunately, the two kinds of “hop”—the plant and the jump—aren’t related, as far as we know.
The verb “hop” that means “to spring a short way upon the ground or any surface with an elastic or bounding movement, or a succession of such movements,” was first recorded in Old English as hoppian around the year 1000, the OED says.
The corresponding noun “hop” (a spring or leap), which was derived from the verb, came along some 500 years later, in 1508.
This “hop,” like the botanical one, is Germanic in origin. Chambers says the source is again Proto-Germanic, a verb reconstructed as hupnojanan, ultimately from an Indo-European base, keub- or kub-.